Posts Tagged ‘Athol Fugard’

Review – “Master Harold and the Boys” and “The Ice Cream Boys” – National and Jermyn Street Theaters

October 18, 2019

To understand South Africa, I think there is much to be said for understanding the works of Athol Fugard; and to enjoy “The Ice Cream Boys,” I think it is good to know the history of South Africa. “Master Harold and the Boys” is, in fact, a perfect set up to understand a play about the modern condition of South Africa, in which freedom has been won but so little equality has been achieved. In “Master Harold,” currently showing at the National, we are faced with a situation of incredible inequality, where two grown men have to bow and scrape before a teenaged boy who’s power over them is less about the fact that they work for his mother and more about the color of his skin. The play teases out both the incredible humanity that could exist between the races in this situation and the incredible inhumanity that the entire structure of apartheid enforced; it is a beautiful piece of theater, very touching, and Lucien Msamati gives a masterful performance as ballroom dancing champion Sam. Its hour and forty minutes is worth it to the last drop.

The apartheid government kept this play from being staged, but forty years later things in South Africa are very different. In “The Ice Cream Boys,” currently playing at thte Jermyn Street Theatre, Gail Louw puts Jacob Zuma (Andrew Francis), fourth president of South Africa, in a hospital room with white Ronnie Kasrils (Jack Klaff), and a different kind of power play spins out. Zuma and Kasrils fought together to liberate South Africa, but Kasrils sees Zuma as a traitor to the cause of equality. Zuma, meanwhile, sees Kasrils as a traitor to himself – he once saw him as a brother, but Kasrils has taken actions to directly discredit Zuma.

As they recount their history together, the nurse (Bu Kunene) appears several times playing other people in South Africa – Mandela, Zuma’s uncle – giving other people’s views on Zuma’s life. But in the end, fending off Zuma’s play for her and also giving her own opinions, she delivers a cutting analysis of how this president is seen by the people he was meant to serve – as selfish and out of touch with what is needed to make South Africa flourish.

While I had been hoping for a much more ramped up interaction between the two men, I found this way of learning about South Africa’s history in the years SINCE “Master Harold” very interesting. Francis is magnetic and self assured, while Klaff seems believably like someone who once carried a machine gun to make a revolution happen. But somehow the impact is not as strong as I’d hoped for, I think because Kasrils’ work in the security services to me implicated him in other kinds of crimes against South Africa. Perhaps he only rose to power once the ANC was in; but I doubt that his behavior was as high minded as this play makes it.

Overall, my recommendation is to see both plays while they’re on; they paint a fascinating picture of a country with a troubled past and an unclear present.

(Master Harold and the Boys is on at the National Theater until December 17th; The Ice Cream Boys is on at Jermyn Street until November 2nd.)

Review – Sizwe Bansi Is Dead – Young Vic

February 23, 2014

How do you pick plays to see? Do you go to everything starring a favorite actor? Do you see all of the productions of a certain theater (like The Royal Court or The Donmar)? Or do you operate from a series of imaginary (or real) life lists, such as “everything by playwright X” (for me this is Pinter, Ibsen, and Shakespeare) or … something else?

In addition to playwright driven goals, I’ve got an ill-defined life list that is “all of the great plays.” Even if membership in this list comes (and but rarely goes) depending on what I learn about as I continue on as a theater viewer, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead was absolutely on it. I missed out seeing it at the Young Vic in September, so this time I jumped on the bandwagon and bought tickets before it opened. I mean, the last time had completely sold out, and they brought it back; when it comes to deciding whether or not this was a quality production, to me the dial was definitely turned toward “yes.” And I’ve seen other plays by Athol Fugard and found him an infinitely watchable playwright, soaked in the core mysteries of what makes people tick and a creator of fully believable plays enhanced (not limited) by the seasoning of his own national background.

This brings us to his most famous work. As ever, I did not research it before I went: other than “quintessential apartheid play,” I was in the dark. I walked into the theater, diverted by a sign (and guard) pointing one way for blacks, and another for whites. The couple in front of me went into a different door than I did. Ah yes, I thought: the world of the Scottsboro Boys; my country did this, too.

The play is practically split in two halves, the first a folksy introduction to the life of a typical black man living under apartheid. Perhaps he was not truly typical, for our protagonist, Mr Styles (Tonderai Munyevu) is employed at a good job in an industrial plant. I enjoyed his story of the daily indignities he endured and his comic ways of keeping his spirits up in spite of it … though eventually he decides to leave it all and become the owner of a photo studio. I wondered how realistic it was that any particular individual could become a successful sole proprietor during that era, and if things were actually more peaceful then than they are now. And it was all very upbeat. Was I being served up Fugard’s idea of the happy oppressed South African, all full of laughs and irony? I was disappointed that such a slight (if entertaining) play had garnered so much attention. On the other hand, given that I was expecting it to be a pile of gloom and doom, I was pleasantly surprised at the tone.

As it turns out, this is very much the sweet coating to to the much weightier story underneath. A second character, played by Sibusiso Mamba, finally appears … but after all of this time waiting, he, too, is not Sizwe Bansi! What the hell, was I actually at a Southern Hemisphere take on Godot? Two actors, no Bansi, NOBODY IS EVER GOING TO DIE and I am going to be stuck listening to Mr Styles making jokes about cats and cockroaches.

And then with a flash of the camera, we are taken to the world of South African in 1972, when the permits on your tribal identity card – and the word of the white man – determined where you could live, where you could work, if you could see your family, whether you starved or scraped by. And at last we get to meet Mr Bansi, and we, the audience, can sit back and wait for the unpleasantness that is watching a character we have grown attached to die on us.

Seeing the Kafkaesque struggles of the pathetically decent family man Sizwe Bansi as he attempts to overcome the white bureaucracy’s heroic attempts to keep him penniless and his children hungry, I couldn’t help but think of the modern British state, working so hard to save us from dangerous, non-British people like Mark Harper’s cleaner and fighting to make sure that loving married couples aren’t together unless the British partner earns some predetermined amount (set, again, by the bureaucracy). Because, you know, government wants to support families by keeping them poor and, better yet, living apart, so their children only know mom/dad via Skype.

Now, I’m not going to deny that I saw how this story was going to go from a mile off. I did. But what I didn’t think was that as I sat there, watching it, I would feel so strongly that this play was not just about the injustices of the apartheid era – for so it is – but so universally about the injustice of any government that stops treating people like human beings and starts treating them like numbers – like problems, as “targets to be reached” (does this one sound familiar) with no accounting for the impact on their lives. I’ve had hoop after hoop put in front of me to allow me to stay in this country, supposedly to “make sure I’m gainfully employed,” but, in truth, to try to keep every opportunity for me to be one more number on the negative side of the balance sheet. This country has managed to get up in arms about identity cards, but fights to escaped from being governed by the EU’s laws on human rights. It’s shameful.

Sizwe Bansi: still incredibly powerful. Still relevant. 100 percent tip to toe a must see.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, February 15th, 2014. It continues through March 15th, although it is almost entirely sold out.)

Reviews – Dimetos, Donmar Warehouse and A View from the Bridge, Duke of York’s Theatre

April 29, 2009

While I don’t normally double up my reviews, there were so many similarities between these two plays that I thought it would make sense to review them together. Both are modern Greek tragedies, both …


Just let me be clear, I am about to give away major plot points. I recommend both of these plays, with the note that A View from the Bridge makes for a better evening’s entertainment (due to being less abstract) than Dimetos, though Dimetos has more beautiful language and imagery and may have more appeal to the sophisticated theater-goer looking to have her imagination tickled. And with THAT, I continue my review and move on to the SPOILERS ….

Both are modern Greek tragedies, both feature men who are inappropriately attracted to their orphaned nieces. Culturally speaking, they are millions of miles away from each other, as Bridge‘s Eddie Carbone (in a note-perfect performance by Ken Stott) is a hard-working longshoreman of the sort idolized by Dimetos (Jonathan Pryce), a highly educated South African engineer. Eddie’s problems (alongside “making enough money to feed his family” and “hiding his wife’s illegally immigrated relatives, who are living in his house”) are how to make sure his his niece is taken care of in a world where a lot of things can go wrong for a young woman; Dimetos’ biggest problem seems to be staving off boredom. In fact, Dimetos seems comically spoiled compared to Eddie, and while he’s certainly engaged with his environment (as in the beginning scene where he’s solving the problem of getting a horse out of a well), it’s just really hard to garner up a huge pile of sympathy for a man with such a big ego.

Oddly, it’s also Eddie’s ego that gets him hugely into trouble at the end of the play (whereas Dimetos’ trouble is ultimately caused by his inaction), but it just seems so much more compelling to see a man whose anger is at having his life overturned and who is, in fact, protecting what he considers to be his own. Mustering up a full head of sympathy is a bit difficult for either of them considering that, well, it is clear that both of them don’t have their hearts in the right place when it comes to their relationships with their nieces, but Eddie the fighter, even if he’s a drunk and lashes out at his loved ones, is easier to understand than Dimetos the dreamer, who feels free to complain about what’s wrong with the world but doesn’t seem to be willing to engage with it.

The heart of both of these plays wants to be the men, but in Dimetos it is the niece, Lydia (Holliday Grainger, whose perfectly toned body had me and my husband debating her workout regime long after we’d stopped talking about the play) who is the real center of her show – much as she is the center of Dimetos’ world. Watching her interact with housekeeper Sophia (Anne Reid) and visitor Danilo (Alex Lanipekun) is fascinating – Sophia clearly loves her and the two of them have a relationship that shows signs of years and years of being built, and the budding love affair with Danilo is just amazingly tense. Will he? Won’t she? And does Lydia even know where things are going? She forms a fascinating character study of a girl on the brink of womanhood – and perhaps passing over it – though the ultimate turn she takes during the play seems to make little sense in terms of her overall personality.

Lydia and Eddie’s niece Catherine (Hayley Atwell) also have a lot in common. Despite being orphaned, they’ve been sheltered and perhaps a bit spoiled; but in an atmosphere in which they have been loved to pieces, they’ve both grown up intelligent, engaged with the world, convinced of their own powers, and perhaps a bit naive. It makes me wonder if Lydia would have followed Catherine’s arc and finally had to just make a run for it if she’d stayed. Catherine, however, did not provide all of the heart of Bridge, as Eddie so strongly held the stage, but as a part of a trio in which the “other woman” was Eddie’s wife, she was in a much more precarious position than Lydia was. It was, in fact, quite painful to watch the tug of war with Catherine’s head as Eddie attempted to bend her to his will and Bea (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) attempted to bend Catherine’s head to a view of reality that would ensure Bea’s continued primacy in the family, and this further added to the dramatic tension of Bridge.

In general, the drama of the Carbone family (will the immigrants be caught and deported? will Eddie’s niece fall in love?) seems much more vibrant that that of Dimetos’ household (will Dimetos decide to return to an exciting job in the city rather than continuing to live somewhere where he’s not appreciated? will the adults start treating Lydia like a part of the family again?), especially given that a key turning point in Dimetos involves two people both going mad and the actors involved doing it completely unbelievably. While the narrator Arthur Miller dropped in Bridge tends to make the whole thing sound a bit Sam Spade (with flat, identical Brooklyn accents), I’m not surprised that Bridge was ultimately able to keep forty 17 year old students riveted to their seats while Dimetos is the rare Donmar non-sellout. I enjoyed them both, but Dimetos, despite its brilliant script and fine performances, was, like Dimetos himself, just too “woo woo” and in love with itself to really provide as much of a punch as A View from the Bridge. I say see both if you can, but if you can only see one … well, do you want to see the play you’ll never see revived again, or do you want to see the one that’s a hugely compelling night out?

Oh, who am I kidding. View from the Bridge is great. But if you miss seeing Holliday Grainger hog up the stage with her big heart and her radiant, perfectly-formed self, you may truly regret it.

(The Dimetos performance reviewed here was seen on Friday, April 24th, 2009. Dimetos continues through Saturday, May 9th, 2009. A View from the Bridge was seen on Monday, April 27th, 2009 and continues through Saturday, May 16th, 2009. If anyone can get me tickets for the Donmar’s next production, A Doll’s House, please let me know as it’s already sold out and I’m sad.)